For centuries Italy has drawn visitors in search of culture and romance with few countries comparing with its enormous Classical origins: its art, architecture, music, design, scenery, food or wine. Its contribution to art far surpasses that of any other nation being home to the most extensive ancient civilisation, the Renaissance, the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican. Blend this with the striking natural beauty of the Tuscan countryside, the vitality of Rome, the effervescence inside every Italian and you have unbeatable ingredients for a tour.
Firstly we visit Tuscany and its great cities of Florence, Siena and Arezzo, then Umbria and Assisi and finally, the Eternal City of Rome. Birthplace of Dante and the Renaissance, Florence has been described, since its 'rediscovery' early in the last century, as the most beautiful city in Italy. It owes its wealth to the explosion of commerce during the Middle Ages. Principally wool and other textile industries, backed by powerful banks turned Florence into one of the world's richest cities. Political control moved to the nobility, especially the Medici who then married into the leading royal families of Europe. The city became the cultural and intellectual heart of Europe for 300 years. Artists and sculptors flocked to the city diverting some of this new wealth in their own direction by filling the palaces and churches to bursting point with some of the world's most outstanding works. Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Titian amongst others, created many of the masterpieces now on display in the Uffizi gallery, an absolute must. Another struggling but brilliant thinker found finance here too: Galileo, inventor of the telescope who, on discovering the first four moons of Jupiter named one of them Medici in honour of his patron.
We also visit Siena, the other great city of Tuscany. Beautifully medieval and enclosed behind vast defensive walls, it has rural parts even within the city creating a unique atmosphere. Indeed it is more a collection of cities being split into a series of parishes whose rivalries are still in evidence during the twice yearly Palio, the famous horse race where anything goes. However the city is quite outstanding and has arguably the most gracious square in the world, the Campo, and to be fair, when you see it, backed by the soaring Campanile, it is hard to disagree.